Distant voices, living music: hearing the past and writing the present
Last year I wrote a composition for large ensemble called Sinfonia, which was directly inspired by English composers of the 15th and 16th centuries who benefitted from exchanges of ideas with the finest composers on the continent. On Wed 6 March 2019 at 6pm at the ACCA, University of Sussex, I will talk about how I wrote Sinfonia and what I discovered, with musical examples performed live on stage. It's free but please register via this link:
Throughout music history, you can find traces of the past in the latest music. However, referencing or parodying earlier or other music often produces mixed reactions. Perhaps this is because it is taken as a sign of decadence, or because the notion of originality is tied up with novelty. But rejecting the past risks losing touch with certain primary gestures and patterns in music that are common to many styles and periods, and therefore understood by audiences. Is the presence of distant voices in contemporary music incompatible with work that is original and relevant today? Or are they an essential factor in galvanising the new?
In my own work I have always recognised the importance of past music as a possible guide in navigating issues like these. But because I also focus on developing a musical language, I am aware of the risks of quotation. I am drawn to the idea that there are certain primary gestures in music that are common to many styles, and that a new piece can legitimately be a working out of background distant voices. In my composition, Sinfonia (2018), I drew on my love of a particularly rich field of music - English composers in the 15th and 16th centuries. Music written in England between approximately 1415 and 1600 ranges wildly across the popular, vernacular, and sacred, to instrumental and vocal music for domestic spaces. My six-part Sinfonia models itself on six very different compositions written in this period:
1 Agincourt Carol, 2’30” (anonymous English folk song, verse & chorus, c.1415)
2 Stella celi, 2’30” (John Cooke: Stella Celi Extirpavit, Old Hall MS, c.1420)
3 Veni Sancte Spiritus, 5’ (Dunstaple motet, 1450)
4 In iejunio et fletu, 4’ (Tallis, Cantiones Sacrae, 1575)
5 The Silver Swan, 3’ (Gibbons, 1600)
6 In Nomine, 5’ (no specific source, responds to the In Nomine genre, strong link to Tye’s ‘Crye', 1570)
In the writing of my Sinfonia, my aims were to explore what connects these diverse pieces, how studying them can enrich one's musical language, and how the musical imagination responds to direct models in early music.
I will talk about how I wrote Sinfonia and what I discovered in a public lecture at the University of Sussex's Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts on Wed 6 March 2019. My lecture will be illustrated with musical examples from 16th century England and my own work, performed live on the ACCA’s stage by the New Music Players: Darragh Morgan (violin), Joe Giddey (cello), Helen Whitaker (flute), Fiona Cross (clarinet), Mary Dullea (piano).
University of Sussex - for 6 March 2019 at 6pm, Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts.
Lecture with live musical performances by the New Music Players.